Ottawa Citizen

In the be­gin­ning, a fear of the end


- Robert Si­b­ley is a se­nior writer with the Cit­i­zen. rsib­ley@ot­tawac­i­t­i­ Overpopulation · Celebrity Inventors · Religion · End of the World · Social Issues · Society · Celebrities · United States of America · U.S. government · Australia · Julia Gillard · NASA · Abraham mateo · British Columbia · William Welch · Nazareth · Saint John · St. John Knits International Inc. · the French government · Dead Sea scrolls · crucifixion of Jesus

The world has been shaped and even gov­erned by dooms­day prophe­cies since Bi­b­li­cal times, writes ROBERT SI­B­LEY, as he con­tin­ues his three-day se­ries on the ‘ apoc­a­lyp­tic era.’

“Surely we would be bet­ter off if we put an end to our ob­ses­sion with end­ings.” — Philoso­pher John Gray

We’ve wor­ried about the end from the very be­gin­ning. Since Bi­b­li­cal times, apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism has been a con­stant hu­man nar­ra­tive, pro­vid­ing fear­ful ideas and im­ages about the ul­ti­mate des­tiny of the world. In re­cent years, de­spite the cul­tural in­flu­ence of sci­ence, it has taken on a whole new im­pe­tus and im­pact.

“Apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism … (has) be­come a con­stant and un­avoid­able pres­ence in ev­ery­day life,” say an­thro­pol­o­gists Kath­leen Stew­ard and Su­san Hard­ing. “The New Age and the New World Or­der per­me­ate the air­waves.”

So it seems. As the cal­en­dar ap­proached Dec. 21 — the day when, ac­cord­ing to some, the Mayan cal­en­dar pre­dicted an end-times up­heaval — a lot of peo­ple seemed to be suf­fer­ing apoc­a­lypse syn­drome.

Ear­lier this month, in­mates in a Rus­sian women’s prison ex­pe­ri­enced such an in­tense “col­lec­tive mass psy­chosis” about the end of the world that the prison war­den called in a priest to calm them down. The French government barred ac­cess to a moun­tain in the south of the coun­try to fend off New Age types who thought an alien space­ship in­side pro­vided an es­cape from the planet’s de­struc­tion. Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties ar­rested nearly 100 peo­ple in a “preapoc­a­lypse” crack­down on end-of-times ru­mour mon­ger­ing.

Even the United States government felt it nec­es­sary to calm pub­lic jit­ters about end-of-the-world fears with an of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment that the Mayan cal­en­dar was wrong and as­sur­ances there was no comet on a col­li­sion course with Earth. In Aus­tralia, Prime Min­is­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard tried satire to dis­pel apoc­a­lyp­tic fears.

“My dear fel­low re­main­ing Aus­tralians,” she said in a dead­pan ap­pear­ance on tele­vi­sion. “The end of the world is coming. It was Y2K. It was even the car­bon price. It turns out that the Mayan cal­en­dar is true.”

We might all share the hu­mour if the idea of apoc­a­lypse didn’t af­fect so many.

“Un­for­tu­nately th­ese ru­mours have many peo­ple fright­ened, es­pe­cially chil­dren,” a NASA of­fi­cial re­cently blogged. “NASA has re­ceived thou­sands of let­ters con­cerned about the end of the world.”

Per­haps be­fore dis­miss­ing this kind of think­ing, we need to un­der­stand it. As po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Robert Leon­hard ex­plains: “Our world is shaped, in­flu­enced and in some cases gov­erned by age-old prophe­cies recorded in the sa­cred lit­er­a­ture of Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam … . It should not sur­prise us then that all three be­liefs con­tain com­pelling and con­tro­ver­sial vi­sions of how hu­man his­tory will end.”

No­tions of apoc­a­lypse are rooted in our un­der­stand­ing of his­tory. There are two ba­sic models of his­tory — the cyclic and the lin­ear. His­tory moves ei­ther in a cir­cle or in a line.

The cyclic view of his­tory dom­i­nates most East­ern re­li­gions — Hin­duism, Bud­dhism, Shin­to­ism, for ex­am­ple — and pa­gan cul­tures like that of the an­cient Greeks. This tra­di­tion sees hu­man his­tory as oc­cur­ring in cy­cles; there is nei­ther a start­ing point nor an end point to it. Such a view, as his­to­rian Richard Kyle notes, “does not en­cour­age endof-the-world pre­dic­tions.”

A lin­ear view, on the other hand, sees his­tory gen­er­ally head­ing in a sin­gle on­go­ing di­rec­tion. This no­tion of his­tory, says Kyle, im­plies that his­tor­i­cal events have a spe­cific pur­pose and an ul­ti­mate end point in which that pur­pose is ful­filled.

The West­ern mind has been greatly in­flu­enced by this lin­ear model of his­tory. Western­ers al­most in­vari­ably per­ceive worldly events head­ing in a con­tin­u­ous di­rec­tion with a par­tic­u­lar pur­pose to be at­tained. Our mod­ern no­tion of progress re­flects this lin­ear un­der­stand­ing of his­tory. (You have to be head­ing some­where to “progress” any­where.) So, too, does apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing. As Kyle says, “this lin­ear view of his­tory does en­cour­age end-time think­ing.” Events in the world are thought to be mov­ing to­ward some fi­nal judg­ment on hu­man­ity, some fu­ture Day of Judg­ment.

Kyle ar­gues that this lin­ear way of think­ing about his­tory be­gan in the an­cient Near East with the He­brews and their con­fronta­tions with their neigh­bours — from the Egyp­tians and the Per­sians (with the Philistine­s, Assyr­i­ans and Baby­lo­ni­ans along the way) to the Greeks and Ro­mans. In ef­fect, West­ern apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism can be traced to the po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the Jewish peo­ple go­ing back thou­sands of years.

That his­tory be­gan with God’s prom­ise to Abra­ham and a small wan­der­ing He­brew tribe around 1,900 B.C. As it says in Ge­n­e­sis: “I will make of you a great na­tion, and I will bless you and make your name great ... and I will bless those who bless you, and him who dis­hon­ours you I will curse, and in you all the fam­i­lies of the earth shall be blessed.”

Such a prom­ise clearly im­plies move­ment into the fu­ture and the ex­pec­ta­tion that at some point that prom­ise will be ful­filled. The re­sult in es­cha­to­log­i­cal terms — that is, ideas of world-end­ings and what they in­volve — is that Jews see the pur­pose of his­tory as the even­tual ful­fil­ment of God’s covenant with Abra­ham, a prom­ise that, ac­cord­ing to the To­rah, would be ful­filled with the ar­rival of the Mes­siah.

Early Chris­tians pretty much adopted this pur­po­sive view of his­tory. How­ever, they be­lieved the Mes­siah had ar­rived. Je­sus Christ had ful­filled God’s covenant with Abra­ham, and es­tab­lished a new one to be ful­filled with the Sec­ond Coming. Draw­ing on the Jewish prophetic tra­di­tion, early Chris­tians thought the Sec­ond Coming was im­mi­nent.

Is­lam, too, took over the Jewish idea of his­tory-with-a-pur­pose, stamp­ing it with Muham­mad’s author­ity in the Qur’an and Ha­diths. Again re­ly­ing on Jewish escha­tol­ogy, Mus­lims forecast a golden age in which the Mahdi ar­rives as the fi­nal caliph be­fore Judg­ment Day. Dur­ing this wait­ing pe­riod the world will be ruled by Sharia laws.

Leon­hard points out that orig­i­nally, nei­ther the Qur’an nor the Ha­diths, the say­ings of the prophet, de­scribed end-times events, but me­dieval Is­lamic cler­ics bor­rowed freely from the To­rah and the New Tes­ta­ment and in­ter­preted the prophe­cies in those texts as really be­ing about Mus­lims. Where Jewish or Chris­tian views clashed with Mus­lim pref­er­ences, the cler­ics claimed the orig­i­nal had been cor­rupted by Is­lam’s en­e­mies. So how will the world end? There’s cer­tainly an abun­dance of apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios in the To­rah, and many Old Tes­ta­ment vi­sions of end times are pos­i­tive and peace­ful — Isa­iah, for ex­am­ple. Still, in Ge­n­e­sis, not long af­ter Adam and Eve, you get Noah and the Flood, ar­guably the proto-typ­i­cal im­age of end times in West­ern cul­ture. Nor should we for­get Sodom and Go­mor­rah where “the Lord rained … brim­stone and fire.” The an­cient He­brew prophets — Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for in­stance — also warn of dire con­se­quences if the Jews weaken in their faith.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a col­lec­tion of 1st cen­tury Jewish doc­u­ments (by a very non-tra­di­tional sect) only dis­cov­ered in 1947, re­fer to the fi­nal con­fronta­tion be­tween the Prince of Light and the An­gel of Dark­ness. “The writer of this scroll sees peo­ple in­volved in a strug­gle of cos­mic pro­por­tions,” says re­li­gion scholar Craig Koester.

The Book of Daniel, com­posed in the 2nd cen­tury B.C. when Ju­daism was again un­der as­sault, is ar­guably the most apoc­a­lyp­tic book in the Jewish Bi­ble. As he in­ter­prets King Ne­buchad­nezzer’s dream, Danel dis­closes the king­dom of God and a fan­tas­ti­cal vi­sion of the rise and fall of worldly em­pires. Daniel’s great hero is the Son of Man who frees the Jews from tyranny and is given, as Koester puts it, “ev­er­last­ing do­min­ion over all peo­ples.” Daniel also ush­ers in the “res­ur­rec­tion of the dead and a time of judg­ment.”

Mus­lims, too, have their Yawm alQiyamah, or Day of Reck­on­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the Ha­diths, the Mahdi, the great­est caliph, will ar­rive to en­gage in a cat­a­clysmic con­flict that will ul­ti­mately free Mus­lims from the cor­rup­tion of the world and see all other re­li­gions bow to Is­lam. The Mahdi will even find the orig­i­nal Ark of the Covenant, which will con­tain ev­i­dence to prove Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity are false re­li­gions. Je­sus will re­turn, too, but only to as­sist the Mahdi and ad­mit to Chris­tians and Jews that he was wrong and the true faith is Is­lam. Je­sus also kills the An­tichrist, the Masih ad-Da­j­jal, who led so many down the wrong path.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ha­diths, Mus­lims need to watch for both ma­jor and mi­nor signs of Qiyamah. The former in­cludes Christ coming to help the Mahdi. But there are also mi­nor signs to watch for — men wear­ing ef­fem­i­nate cloth­ing and mar­ry­ing other men, peo­ple not car­ing if their chil­dren are il­le­git­i­mate, women try­ing to dom­i­nate men through sheer num­bers, among oth­ers.

Chris­tian­ity is equally apoc­a­lyp­tic, although, of course, it is Chris­tian­ity that will win out at the end of time. “If we take Je­sus of Nazareth as the start­ing point for Chris­tian­ity, Chris­tian­ity is apoc­a­lyp­tic in its ori­gins,” says bi­b­li­cal scholar Paula Fredrik­sen. “Apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism is Chris­tian­ity.”

That ar­gu­ment is re­in­forced by some of the say­ings at­trib­uted to Je­sus. “This gen­er­a­tion shall not pass away be­fore all of th­ese things have come to pass,” He told his dis­ci­ples. When asked about the signs of the end-times, Je­sus refers to war and wicked­ness and evil, and then makes this prom­ise: “All th­ese things shall be ful­filled in your own time.”

His­to­rian Mervyn Ben­dle points out that the Apos­tle Paul’s let­ters, along with the Book of Matthew in the New Tes­ta­ment, are also deeply apoc­a­lyp­tic. The two most cru­cial events in the New Tes­ta­ment — Christ’s Cru­ci­fix­ion and Res­ur­rec­tion — oc­curred at the same time as a se­ries of earth­quakes, ac­cord­ing to Matthew.

Paul demon­strates the in­flu­ence of apoc­a­lyp­tic at­ti­tudes with his de­scrip­tions of the great strug­gle be­tween life and death. And, taken as a whole, the gospels re­count Je­sus’s an­nounce­ment of the soon-to-ar­rive king­dom of God and His plan for the world.

How­ever, the main source of Chris­tian­ity’s apoc­a­lyp­tic imag­in­ings has been, says Ben­dle, the last book of the New Tes­ta­ment, the Book of Rev­e­la­tion of St. John the Di­vine, with its vi­sion of an end-of-days world where good and evil, the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the Lamb and the Beast, en­gage in a fi­nal cos­mic bat­tle for the soul of mankind.

Ac­cord­ing to the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, there will be a time of Tribu­la­tion when Satan’s earthly agent — the An­tichrist or the Beast who will rule a uni­fied Europe (the Euro­pean Union, in the view of some) — at­tempts to as­sert con­trol over the world. Is­rael is in­vaded and Jerusalem oc­cu­pied. Dur­ing the years of Tribu­la­tion, the na­tions of the world gather for the fi­nal apoc­a­lyp­tic war. Of course, Christ has re­turned and God’s forces even­tu­ally tri­umph, ush­er­ing in a new golden age in which Christ would reign for 1,000 years un­til the fi­nal judg­ment and the end of the world

John’s strange book has had an im­mense im­pact on West­ern con­scious­ness even though it has been down­played by the Ro­man Catholic Church and main­stream Protes­tantism. Early Chris­tians be­lieved Christ’s re­turn and the end of the world was im­mi­nent, but by the 5th cen­tury A.D., with no Sec­ond Coming on the hori­zon and Chris­tian­ity the of­fi­cial re­li­gion of the Ro­man Em­pire, the book was be­ing in­ter­preted al­le­gor­i­cally. In­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, as the his­to­rian Richard Kyle re­marks, “put a damper on the fires of apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism.” Rev­e­la­tion, St. Au­gus­tine ar­gued, showed the his­tory of the church, not the end-times. The Tribu­la­tion was an al­le­gor­i­cal de­scrip­tion of the con­flict of good and evil within the hearts and minds of Chris­tians.

In 431 A.D., the Coun­cil of Eph­e­sus adopted Au­gus­tine’s views, declar­ing the time of the Sec­ond Coming could not be known and, there­fore, Rev­e­la­tion’s no­tion of sal­va­tion re­ferred not to mankind’s fu­ture but to what hap­pened to the in­di­vid­ual soul af­ter death.

That edict has been dis­puted ever since. The 12th-cen­tury monk Joachim of Fiore had his own rev­e­la­tion about the Book of Rev­e­la­tion. Af­ter an epiphany one Easter morn­ing, Joachim thought he’d been given the key to the true mean­ing of Rev­e­la­tion — his­tory is di­vided into three eras based on the Trin­ity of the Fa­ther, Son and the Holy Spirit. The Old Tes­ta­ment was the era of the Fa­ther, while the New Tes­ta­ment was the era of the Son. That must mean, he thought, that a third era, the fi­nal Age of the Spirit was ap­proach­ing.

Events of the time seemed to war­rant this claim, and Joachim’s ideas spread through­out Europe. Many in Europe thought that Sal­adin, the Mus­lim leader who’d taken Jerusalem from the Cru­saders in 1187, was a har­bin­ger of the An­tichrist.

“Such ideas turned Europe up­side down,” writes Kyle. “Joachim had chal­lenged (the Church’s) the spir­i­tu­al­ized in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Rev­e­la­tion. The An­tichrist, the mil­len­nium, Gog and Ma­gog were no longer spir­i­tu­al­ized. They were real peo­ple and real events.”

The years be­tween the 12th and the 15th cen­turies also seemed to re­in­force Joachim’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory. Apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism ran ram­pant through Europe af­ter the Mon­gol in­va­sions in the 13th cen­tury and the hor­rors of the Black Death in the 14th cen­tury. Apoc­a­lyp­tic anx­i­eties con­tin­ued in the 16th and 17th cen­turies as Europe de­scended into the wars of re­li­gion.

“Euro­peans be­lieved that they were liv­ing in the last and per­ilous times,” says Kyle. “They saw the events of their time in light of Daniel, Rev­e­la­tion, and even as­tro­log­i­cal pre­dic­tions.”

Some weren’t con­tent to wait for the end in peace. In the early 1500s, a priest by the name of Thomas Muentzer thought the vi­sions of Rev­e­la­tion ap­plied to his time. He told peas­ants that the rich were the evil ones de­scribed in the Book of Rev­e­la­tion and called on them to chal­lenge rich landown­ers and other au­thor­i­ties. The rich didn’t take kindly to any­one try­ing to re­dis­tribute their wealth. They gath­ered their armies and hand­ily slaugh­tered the peas­ants as they marched into bat­tle singing hymns. So ended The Peas­ants’ Re­volt in 1525.

There have been other out­breaks of apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism since the 16th cen­tury, but the Ref­or­ma­tion and En­light­en­ment and the new age of sci­ence, with its prom­ise of build­ing heaven on earth through tech­nol­ogy, un­der­mined the psy­cho­log­i­cal need for di­vine sal­va­tion. As ma­te­rial life im­proved and famine and disease de­clined, and a more sec­u­lar world view took hold, Western­ers grew less con­cerned with apoc­a­lypse. That doesn’t mean apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism faded away; it merely took other forms. Karl Marx’s the­ory of his­tory, with its feu­dal­ist, bour­geois and pro­le­tariat eras, was es­sen­tially a re­work­ing of Joachim de Fiore’s nar­ra­tive, as well heav­ily in­debted to the Jewish apoc­a­lyp­tic tra­di­tion.

So why in our sup­pos­edly postide­o­log­i­cal age has apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism re­turned so strongly? Why, de­spite all the “progress” of moder­nity — sci­en­tific, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, mo­ral, etc. — do so many think the world is go­ing to end, at least as we know it? And what might be the con­se­quences of this new Apoc­a­lyp­tic Era?

Those ques­tions will be con­sid­ered in Fri­day’s con­clud­ing es­say. Read Part 3 in Fri­day’s pa­per

 ??  ?? Gio­vanni Benedetto Castiglion­e’s In Front of Noah’s Ark, an oil on can­vas paint­ing from around 1650.
Gio­vanni Benedetto Castiglion­e’s In Front of Noah’s Ark, an oil on can­vas paint­ing from around 1650.
 ??  ?? Above, An­drea del Sarto’s The Sac­ri­fice of Abra­ham, a paint­ing done be­tween 1527-1529. Top right, Sal­adin the Victorious, a 19th-cen­tury paint­ing by Gus­tave Doré. Right, The Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of bi­b­li­cal manuscript­s from the He­brew Bi­ble.
Above, An­drea del Sarto’s The Sac­ri­fice of Abra­ham, a paint­ing done be­tween 1527-1529. Top right, Sal­adin the Victorious, a 19th-cen­tury paint­ing by Gus­tave Doré. Right, The Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of bi­b­li­cal manuscript­s from the He­brew Bi­ble.
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